The film industry has, traditionally, always been the preserve of the young and the beautiful – that is, unless you’re male. Actors such as Richard Gere, Michael Douglas, Jack Nicholson and George Clooney have headlined films well into their 50s and 60s, often opposite much younger actresses. Indeed, it’s still common practice, with this week’s The Mummy seeing Tom Cruise paired up with Annabelle Wallis, over 20 years his junior.
However, the same hasn’t always been true for women in film. With a few rare exceptions, actresses tend to find work offers become less frequent after they reach 40. Even some of the most dynamic, popular stars of the time find themselves with nothing other than broadly written support roles, usually playing an underdeveloped mother or wife character. Stars like Geena Davis, Rene Russo, Sharon Stone, Demi Moore and Goldie Hawn were all top of the Tinseltown tree until disappearing quite dramatically from studio films as they got older, either popping up again in minor roles or leaving the industry altogether.
Thankfully, times are changing. Studios are waking up to the realisation that, yes, women go to the cinema too; and that audiences of all backgrounds will appreciate a well-crafted story, regardless of the gender of the person telling it.
Rachel Weisz stars in this week’s new drama My Cousin Rachel, playing a woman suspected by her cousin (Sam Claflin) of murdering his guardian. It’s the latest in a career that hasn’t really dipped since her emergence in the late '90s, with the 47-year-old mixing arthouse fare (The Lobster) with gripping dramas (Denial) and blockbuster franchises (The Bourne Legacy, Oz the Great and Powerful). The former star of The Mummy trilogy is not alone, with a number of today’s female stars bucking past trends – to the delight of movie fans.
For some actors, it’s simply that they will never cease in their pursuit of a strong role. 42-year-old Amy Adams may only just have passed that threshold, but it would take a very pessimistic view to argue that her career is about to downturn. The five-time Oscar nominee follows up the critically acclaimed Nocturnal Animals and Arrival with the small matter of playing Lois Lane in superhero team-up Justice League in December. Similarly, Jessica Chastain is just getting started at 40, having recently been cast as Ingrid Bergman and making headlines at Cannes for speaking out on the “disturbing” way women are represented on screen.
One star who certainly can’t be accused of being pigeonholed is Cate Blanchett. A bright light of the film industry for over 20 years, the 48-year-old has played a criminal, a journalist, a queen, a movie icon, an elf, Bob Dylan… she’s had the type of career anyone of any age would kill for, and still maintains that success. She’s soon to be part of the all-female Ocean’s Eight (four of whom, incidentally, are actors over 40), and has already won fans’ hearts in the trailer for Thor: Ragnarok as villain Hela. Blanchett and others like her form a group of actresses pushing past what studios are expected of them, maintaining the glamour of young stardom and mixing it with nuanced performances which are the result of years of experience.
In addition to this group, there are the performers whose talents have only been fully realised since they’ve gotten older. At 51, Viola Davis won her first Academy Award this year for her supporting role in Fences. Having just appeared in Wonder Woman and the new series of House of Cards, Robin Wright seems to be eclipsing her breakthrough years in the late '80s and early '90s with more interesting, complex characters. There’s also Hidden Figures star Taraji P. Henson, for years an under-appreciated actress, whose most successful roles didn’t arrive until her 40s. And while she started off strong in Jurassic Park in her 20s, Laura Dern’s most interesting work has come in her late 40s, with films like Wild, Certain Women and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Hollywood took notice (again), making her part of the forthcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
While a pattern is emerging, these stars remain exceptions in an industry still struggling in terms of gender equality. Film is a business of repetition, however, and just as younger names like Jennifer Lawrence, Daisy Ridley and Gal Gadot are showing the potential of women starring in traditionally male-dominated genres, Rachel Weisz and others can set a precedent for the vast array of interesting characters that are possible if women over a certain age are drawn towards the camera, and not pushed away from it.
My Cousin Rachel is in UK cinemas from 9th June.